The unmistakable POP! was instantly followed by a noisy hissing and bubbling as the inflatable kayak beneath me suddenly went flaccid. The two main air cells were breached and taking on water. Within seconds the kayak was barely afloat.
It was a perfect storm of misfortune. I was more than a mile from the take out at the southern end of Dutton Island, an inland island surrounded by marshes near our home in Florida’s Atlantic Beach. I was deep within a remote maze of estuary channels, my cell phone battery dead, the tide rapidly going out, and I was hung up on a cluster of razor-sharp oysters that grew in scattered beds throughout the maze. There was no possibility of walking out of the marsh either. In the attempt to free the impaled kayak I lost one of my flip-flops in the thick, oozing muck. Colonies of sharp-edged oysters hid here and there just beneath the surface of the black water and, if I abandoned the kayak, I wouldn’t get five yards before they would shred my bare feet to ribbons. A neon sign of warning flashed urgently in my head signaling that the decision I made in the next moments would be critical. Now was the time for calm, rational thought. A desperate or a poor choice could leave me stranded for hours, or worse.
A quick assessment of the kayak’s condition, the water level, and direction of the tide left only one option: paddle the quickest and deepest route back to civilization. I didn’t know how much longer the kayak would stay afloat. Although the remaining air cells seemed to be intact my little vessel was riding low in the water and responded sluggishly to my paddle strokes. It didn’t seem to be foundering but I couldn’t afford another breach as the water level continued to ebb with the outgoing tide. Staying in the center of the largest and deepest channels was the best chance of keeping the bottom of the crippled kayak above and beyond the reach of the treacherous oysters.
The take out was the only location where I could both get safely to dry land and back to my car, and there were only two routes to the take out. I had to make an immediate decision which one to choose. The first route was shorter but through the marsh channels, and without the GPS on my smartphone I wasn’t absolutely certain of the route. I would be paddling along increasingly shallower water trails and likely become impaled again. A wrong turn into a dead end could make my dicey situation even worse by leaving me completely stranded deep in the marsh with only a trickle of water in the channels until the next high tide. By then the kayak might be totally useless and I would be cut off from an escape and trapped.
The second route I knew with certainty, but it was a longer route and took me back out to the river known as the “intercoastal waterway”. Out in the river the dropping water level would force me further toward the middle and closer to motor boat traffic. I was confident I could stay close enough to the river’s shore to avoid unobservant boaters, but I would still have to slog through rough motor boat wake waves. The tidal current would also work against me and was much stronger in the river than in the marsh. The river option meant a long, hard paddle in my poor crippled little kayak. I chose the river route, reclined back in the kayak to counter its deflating taco effect, and pulled hard on the paddle through a wide marsh channel until I emerged out into the river.
For the next hour and a half I struggled against the river’s outgoing tidal current, keeping a wary eye on the boats. With every outboard that sped by came the wake waves: a succession of five or six each time, making it more difficult to get any forward progress toward the take out.
Hot, tired, thirsty, and with my arms and shoulders aching, I finally left the river and entered the cut that led back into the estuary and the take out. The river tide was particularly strong at the mouth of the cut and required doubling my strokes to barely make slow, grudging headway. If I stopped paddling, even for a moment, the current would carry me back out to the intercoastal waterway. Miraculously the crippled kayak remained afloat, so I leaned forward to get more power into each stroke and kept going. The take out wasn’t far now. Dip right, pull, dip left, pull. Dip right, pull, dip left, pull. Right. Left. Right. Left.
Farther into the channel the current relaxed a bit and the going became somewhat easier. A woman fishing from the dock at the take out waved to me as she saw me emerging from around the tall salt marsh grasses at the last turn. I waved back and breathed a sigh of relief that the little crippled kayak and I were finally at the end of our adventure.
On the way home, as I considered how to patch the kayak and get back out on the water, I realized my misadventure is a fitting allegory of our life on Earth.
Our take out is the heavenly portal through which we come to live and journey by faith and through which we leave this place and return to our heavenly home. We paddle through this earthly estuary, along its winding paths where we encounter sublime beauty and wonder, such as the dolphins who kept me company on the first part of my trek when the kayak was still healthy and whole, the sun glinting on the water, and the peaceful solitude of miles of quiet marshland tributaries all around me. There is much joy to be found in this mortal and strangely foreign existence: the tender love of a parent toward a child, the rich bonhomie among dear friends, the love born of serving a neighbor, the satisfaction of planting a seed and watching it grow, creating something beautiful, making order out of chaos, the harmony of a marriage nourished by devotion and sacrifice.
More reliable than the navigation app on my power-hungry smartphone is our spiritual global position system (GPS) of the scriptures, the words of prophets, inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and the counsel of others who are wise. All these help us navigate along the safest routes through life and eventually guide us back to our home.
Often adversity impales us on shards of poor decisions, such as taking an inflatable kayak into a marsh when the tide is going out, or ruining our health with substance abuse, neglect, and addiction, or ignoring the wisdom of the divine GPS and thinking we can make this journey on our wits alone. Adversity also slices into us for no apparent reason at all; we are simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. The accident caused by a drunk driver, victims of abuse, casualties of war, a job loss, mental illness, physical disability, the betrayal of a friend. The list is endless. Sometimes we even volunteer for adversity when we break out of our comfort zone to blaze a new trail by taking a risk, going back to school, or learning a new skill. These challenges are our ebbing tides, our razor-sharp oyster beds, our oozing muck, our motor boat waves, our aching muscles.
Regardless of the cause, adversity is as much a part of our journey as joy. It is uncomfortable, often painful, frequently difficult, and certainly unpleasant. But we learn important lessons during these periods of trial and challenge, lessons we would never learn otherwise, character we would never discover if the winds were always fair, the tide always high, and the river always calm. Hopefully, we turn for help to the One who knows us best, we recognize the opportunity to gain wisdom from the experience, we deepen understanding and compassion. From the aching muscles of paddling against the current we grow stronger, more capable of handling the next challenge. Blisters turn to calluses, and our once tender skin is not so susceptible to being bruised and torn next time.
Time and again we must paddle against the tides of life. We have to keep pulling through the water no matter how tiring or discouraging the effort or the current will sweep us out to places we don’t want to go. The worst decision is the decision to give up. Prayers of faith, seeking strength, guidance, and comfort pull down a divine reservoir of aid to keep us moving forward. Whatever it takes we must keep our faith strong and our hope bright. We can’t afford to let the light of Truth dim in our souls or we will find ourselves stumbling in a darkness that attracts despair and even more adversity.
After all our experiences in the marshes and rivers of mortality we eventually paddle around the last bend to the take out. All the challenges, all the struggle will finally be over. Rest and peaceful shores are before us. Sore, tired, and relieved we step out of this earthly estuary and are welcomed home.